Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald

“Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. Amen, I say to you, I have come not to abolish but to fulfil…You have heard it said to your ancestors: ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgement.’ But I say to you: Whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgement…” Matthew 5, 17-37

In this section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tackles the way in which we human beings have often approached law. We have often slipped into a legalistic approach to law, giving our attention to observing the letter of the law but missing the spirit underlying the letter. I can still recall classroom discussions and debates from my own school-days of the 1950s as we explored what were then called the Laws of the Church. There was one about Sunday observance (going to Mass on Sundays and avoiding unnecessary, heavy work). This led to discussions about whether or not latecomers committed venial sins if they arrived at Mass after the gospel was read. It was asserted that, if they missed the offertory prayer, they would have to line up for the next Mass. The ruling was that they would not have met their Sunday obligation if they came in after the offertory and that they would be guilty of a mortal sin if they didn’t attend another Mass that day. That led to debates on whether they had to stay at the second Mass only up to the point at which they arrived on their first attempt. There were also debates about the seriousness of eating meat on Fridays. Would the consumption of meat gravy be equivalent to having eaten a steak or a meat pie? Was having the gravy less sinful than having solid meat? This was legalism at its worst, and there were many Catholics who grew up with an infantile approach to law: “How far can I go before I end up committing a sin?” It was as though morality was measured by a slide-rule or a micrometer screw gauge.

As a consequence of such an approach, law and codes of conduct came to be seen as oppressive and regulatory rather than instruments to promote and guide responsible freedom. At the same time, there is something within many of us human beings that longs for the comfort of certainty, of knowing that we are right within ourselves, with one another, and, especially, right with God. The desire to be “right with God” is often related to a belief that life is about earning one’s way into heaven. Being compliant with the commandments and faithful to the laws and traditions of the Church will give us the assurance that God will reserve for us a place in heaven.

But walking in the footsteps of Jesus means living life with vigour and energy; it calls for making prudential judgements in situations that are often ambiguous, that are tinged with uncertainty and doubt, that don’t open themselves to easy answers but ones that are the product of discerning hearts and the riskiness of faith. Life is not meant to be lived according to some absolute, clearly articulated formula. It is an adventure inspired and guided by the Spirit of God planted deep in our hearts. Living in tune with God’s Spirit means getting beyond obsession with legal details to living lives inspired by love, selflessness, care and compassion – qualities that give meaning to all laws built on justice. Living by faith is a risky business. It means trusting God.

The writers of Integrity in Ministry: A Document of Principles & Standards to Guide Priests and Religious Women and Men in their Ministry captured Jesus’ understanding of the spirit meant to enliven law when they wrote in the Foreword:

A code of conduct formulated for any profession aims to breathe freedom and energy into practitioners of that particular profession as they interact with the people who come to them seeking to benefit from their expertise. A code of conduct is not intended to restrict or stifle the conduct of those professionals to whom it applies. Rather, it is a set of behavioural standards to ensure that professionals themselves preserve their own dignity and respect the human dignity of all to whom they relate in the exercise of their profession. Integrity in Ministry, p. iii, April 2010

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus proclaims that we live our lives in tune with God, filled with freedom and energy when we truly respect and honour everyone around us. A minimalist approach to law puts the focus on what is forbidden – killing and committing adultery (the two directives of the Mosaic Law to which Jesus specifically refers). But Jesus says that it is important to look within ourselves at what it is that first fuels the urge to kill and what it is that leads us to want to use others as objects for sexual gratification. He points out that we are all capable of fuelling the anger inside and the desire to get even until they overflow into violence. He knows that we all experience desires for lust, and proceeds to say that there are times when we prefer the illusion of dishonesty to speaking the truth about ourselves and our world. Moreover, we know that there are times when truth-telling is punished by ridicule. Many of us will remember when Jimmy Carter, the Democratic Party candidate in the 1976 US Presidential Election, spoke with honesty in an interview with Playboy magazine: “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.” He was belittled for echoing what Jesus says in today’s gospel reading. Yet harbouring and feeding the very attitudes that Jesus challenges are what prevent us from opening ourselves to God’s Spirit within us and, thereby, living into the fullness of God’s life to which all three of today’s readings refer.

Sirach reminds us that we have the capacity to choose life or death. Paul, in today’s second reading, explains that we are spiritually mature when we can look beyond the emptiness of what the world holds out as wisdom to choose the wisdom of God. And Jesus urges us to identify and explore the motives on which all our actions are built. In this context, I am reminded of the Cherokee story of the two wolves:

A Cherokee Indian elder was teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”
His grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked: “Which wolf will win, grandad?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”